This Passover, I actually celebrated Passover. Sort of.
That is to say, while I was in Germany with my boyfriend’s (also Jewish) family, I participated in not one but two seders – an exemplary start to Passover for someone who usually marks the holiday by just eating some matzah and calling it a day (or eight). There were seder plates, there was reading of the Haggadah (albeit a speedy version – we were hungry), there was singing in Hebrew, there was Manischewitz, and yes, there was The Prince of Egypt, a classic Passover film. Not a crumb of chametz passed my lips.
Except, as soon as I was left to my own devices at the airport on the third day of Passover, I succumbed to the temptation presented by my last opportunity, at least for some months, to eat a German pretzel. Oh well – nothing more Jewish than guilt, anyway.
Speaking of guilt; I should confess at long last, dear reader, that after a year of writing this column, I still feel kind of guilty about it. Why? Because deep down, some part of me really doesn’t believe I’m Jewish enough to broadcast it to the world (or at least the limited world of Cherwell’s readership – no offence to my wonderful colleagues), much less to embarrass myself by trying to educate others about Jewishness, when I can’t last three days of Passover without eating a pretzel. Jewish holidays in particular, as I have mentioned in a previous article, always rouse in me a particular discomfort, since, in the company of more ‘proper’ Jews who actually know the right traditions and can pronounce the Hebrew, I feel decidedly like I’m failing some kind of test.
Of course, I know on an intellectual level that just because I can’t read (much less speak) Hebrew, I don’t pray or pronounce blessings, and I don’t make a particular effort to keep kosher doesn’t change the fact that I’m Jewish. I was born Jewish and I’ll die Jewish; as far as I’m concerned, there’s no opt-out box on that one. I also believe that such a complex identity shouldn’t be reduced only to following a prescriptive set of ancient rules, which may not suit me anyway – I don’t believe in God (please contain your shock!), so regardless of my lack of Hebrew, saying prayers of any kind has never felt comfortable to me in any case.
As it happened, shortly before we left for Frankfurt for the first seder, I got into a conversation with an old friend of my boyfriend’s dad about Judaism, and specifically about whether it was too focused on rules. He argued that it was, and on thinking about it, I was inclined to agree, and realised that actually this pinpointed the very source of much of my discomfort – though in my view, Jewishness doesn’t have to be this way. I think that the obsession with observance derives from the sort of siege mentality which has, understandably, developed in many Jews as a result of millenia of oppression – the twin threats of antisemitism on the one hand and assimilation on the other can make us feel like we’re constantly teetering on the edge of oblivion, and so must cling ferociously to our traditions in order to ground ourselves. There is of course nothing wrong with tradition per se, but it seems to me personally that too much obsession with the particulars of the rules and their loopholes seems to distract from the overall purpose of the activity; for example, if the core message of Shabbat is rest, surely I would rest better by worrying less about whether I’m resting ‘correctly’?
The aspects of the Passover celebrations I most enjoyed were discussing our own views on theology and ethics while going for a long walk, participating in a joyful and loud family dinner, and curling up with mugs of tea to watch The Prince of Egypt. Incidentally, the film classic is much more my speed than the Haggadah, which got me thinking: does it matter how we tell the story, so long as we do? I think if I were to plan my own Pesach celebration, I would decide it didn’t; why stumble over words I don’t understand in praise of a God I don’t believe in, when I could interpret the story in my own words, on terms that make it meaningful for me? Perhaps the question of how we can connect to traditions authentically, without doing things we don’t believe in for the sake of it or giving up on truly living our Jewishness, is a universal diasporic and/or secular conundrum. But as far as I’m concerned, family, friends, food, storytelling, and yes, also critical thinking, are the real Jewish values I want to hold on to.
Seder: the ritual dinner which takes place on the first night (or two nights) of Passover.
Haggadah: the text recited at Seder, which includes the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
Manischewitz: sweet kosher wine.
Chametz: foods containing leavening agents, which cannot be eaten during Passover.
Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker / CC BY 2.0 via flickr